If at this point you are tired of my enthusiasm for the continued dining renaissance going on in the heart of Bakersfield and have concluded that I am a closeted member of the Downtown Business Association posing as a restaurant critic, you'd best move on. Nothing to see here.
But if you don't believe that, we have another hip, trendy and satisfying restaurant option downtown: Wall Street Cafe, which has transformed what used to be a humble gourmet macaroni and cheese space into a classy, sophisticated spot that made my companion exclaim, "I feel like I'm in another city!" It's that kind of metamorphic experience that convinces me the renewal of downtown is real, ongoing and continuing to feed on its own momentum.
Of course the welcome addition of Wall Street Cafe to the scene is led by folks who already have a foothold in the area, as the brains behind Enso Izakaya sushi bar. Phil Chang, who co-owns that restaurant with his wife, is sole owner of the new place and has hired Kenneth Ross as manager and Chris Kuwahara as chef. Ross said in a phone interview that the trio wants "to take a fresh, gourmet approach to interesting foods, with French and Italian influences. We expect to continue a heavy European influence in both the bar and the kitchen. We all love Central Coast wines, but we might take something similar from Chile or Spain and offer that. Our goal is to open up people's palates, give them something different. You can expect the menu and bar taps to rotate every few months."
Ross said the restaurant will offer call-ahead ordering at lunch -- "We realize how tight the time can get since we cook everything to order" -- and will make the side room available for private parties in the future. The narrow dining room is split in half, but has a wide corrugated steel door that can be opened (as it was halfway through our first dining experience). There are high top and low top tables -- take your pick. The chairs alternate between white and black vinyl. The far right wall is exposed brick, and on the left wall, behind the substantial bar, are four shelves of wine bottles. The lighting is dim but adequate -- perfect for the vibe they're attempting. The ceiling has the exposed AC/heat duct work with a cement gray color scheme. The floor is made of genuine planks. One TV above the bar was tuned to sports, and the crowd back in February seemed appreciative.
There are six beers on draft, and none of them are the usual suspects -- mostly ales, porters and IPAs, though Coors, Corona and Miller Lite are available in bottles. The wine list is internationally diverse, fairly priced (double retail) and extensive in both its by-the-glass selections and bottles. Corkage is $15, but waived with the purchase of a bottle from the list. One thing I noticed when we ordered a glass of sauvignon blanc was that the wine was served at the perfect temperature -- not too hot, not too cold. It should be served about 45 degrees. Didn't have a thermometer handy, but that seemed to be what it was.
The menu is spare at two pages, but I prefer the thought and description: five appetizers (including the trendy bone marrow and pork belly), five salads, three sandwiches, five entrees and two desserts. On our first visit we skipped right to the entrees, my companion selecting the spicy shrimp scampi ($12.99) while I chose the rib eye ($20.99). Both were exceptionally impressive.
Let's start with my steak. At that price, you don't expect prime meat, but the beef was cooked to order, tender, flavorful and decently trimmed of fat. The key ingredient to me was the red wine butter. How could two of my all-time favorite substances have been combined in such a winning fashion and I be completely unaware of it? I know that this is just a thinner modern variation of classic French sauces, but what the kitchen here does with it, particularly in the portion slathered on the grilled beef, is a harmonious accentuation of what it should be. It rocks. It was served with Anna potatoes that had an edgy, modern taste and presentation -- they were like home fries, incredibly crispy on some of the thin potato scallops, soft in other areas. The crowning touch were the roasted fresh asparagus spears, which inspired a conversation about my 100 percent German father's obsessive devotion to the vegetable. He would've loved these, and the way they perfectly grilled them gave me confidence that the roasted veggie pasta ($10.99) is probably similarly charming (it adds tomato, bell pepper and mushrooms to the spears). (Vegetarians also may be tempted by the truffle and wild mushroom pasta, $24.99).
My companion's shrimp linguini was fantastic, made with a light compound butter and fresh jumbo shrimp. Its simplicity was its beauty, the garlic proportion once again hitting the right note, the pasta al dente.
Our only disappointment was the house-made apple pie dessert ($6.99). My companion appreciated that it was not too cloying, but I was disappointed by the size (like a tart, really, not much wider than a golf ball), and the crust tasted of shortening rather than butter. Only a dollop of real whipped cream on top. It looked like toy food.
We went back for a second visit to sample the bruschetta ($6.99), the pork belly ($10.99) and the North Carolina pulled pork sandwich ($10.99), though we were tempted by the Wall Street burger ($9.99), mostly for its fennel slaw and oven-dried tomatoes and the skirt steak sandwich ($11.99) with those same tomatoes, arugula and a Chimichurri aioli. I confess I don't get pork belly, that trendy cut of the pig that is not smoked or cured but ends up seeming to me like a great waste of potential bacon. The version here was crisp, but the only thing in two visits that we didn't finish. The bruschetta was simple but amazing -- the roasted garlic being key. The pork was so moist, flawed only by a boring bun. Meat like that demands a bakery bun -- in my mind I imagined it on a Pyrenees sourdough and it was elevated immediately.
Service on both visits was solid, the staff well trained but not exceedingly formal. They tend to do smart things, such as leave the beer and wine list on the table if you order a glass in case you want to get a different one later.
Wall Street Cafe can be recommended for a fine dining experience.